An overweight, unshaven man in a baseball cap seems to be frightening some of the city’s leading businesspeople.
Business executives and University of Nevada alumni are applying heavy pressure to UNR student government officers to torpedo filmmaker Michael Moore’s Oct. 13 campus appearance—or at least alter its format.
The news comes as George Bush supporters are making campuses focal points of political controversy. The Bush administration blocked the entry into the United States of Notre Dame professor Tariq Ramadan, a Muslim scholar who had been expected to become a peace studies instructor at the famed institution. George Mason University officials in Richmond pulled the plug on a Moore appearance after pressure from a Virginia state legislator, Republican Richard Black.
Reno businessmen Rob Winkel (Barker Coleman real estate), Len Savage (Savage and Sons plumbing supply), Rick Reviglio (Western Nevada Supply), John Madole (Associated General Contractors), and Larry Sankovich (Sankovich and Simkin accountants) spoke at a Sept. 23 Associated Students of the University of Nevada senate meeting, referring to “the likes of Michael Moore” (Sankovich) and the “naïve and misled” students (Madole) and later even offered money to the young officials to alter the event (Reviglio).
The UNR Sagebrush quoted thinly veiled threats: “Michael Moore’s appearance … could potentially be the most expensive speaker this university has ever had,” Sankovich said. “Many people may no longer support an institution that uses student money and university facilities in order to promote the likes of Michael Moore.”
“This is not a threat, this is just a fact,” Savage said. “We represent several hundred people, several businesses and millions of dollars. You need to understand the ramifications.”
The heaviest pressure fell on the student vice president for programming, Jeff Champagne, whose office gives him the principal responsibility for student-sponsored events. In addition, he says, his father is employed by Savage. But the student politician is standing firm, saying that changing the decision under pressure would let down those who voted for him.
“I would not feel like I was representing my constituents and the students on this campus. But then, it’s like—people do it all the time in federal government and state government, and it’s kind of sad.”
Champagne said that whatever prospect of success the alumni and businesspeople had of convincing the students to cancel the event was probably eliminated by the tone they used.
“And so they came in to oppose the event, and the Senate didn’t respond too well because basically they came in with an ‘angry parent'-type attitude and really kind of talked down to the senators.”
After the public meeting, Champagne was taken aback and, he said, disappointed by several telephoned overtures from Reviglio. Champagne said he received messages from Reviglio offering successively larger sums of money if the event was changed to a debate—$25,000, then $50,000 and finally $100,000. Changing the nature of the event would violate the students’ contract with Moore. Nevertheless, Champagne looked into the possibility and found that the change would require going back through the student government approval process, pushing a decision past the Oct. 13 date of Moore’s appearance.
Champagne said he felt that offering student officials money to change their decisions was “unethical,” though he would not rule out that it was something that happened in politics outside the university—businesspeople offering elected officials money to change their decisions, for example.
Later, Reviglio told the students he went over their heads to university administrators to try to get the Moore visit cancelled and was rebuffed. That step deepened the feeling among students that the businesspeople felt they were dealing with children instead of adults.
In his telephone messages to Champagne, Reviglio repeatedly described his strategy of offering money to the students in order to put Moore in the position of losing money for UNR by refusing a debate. Reviglio also said he intended to work the press to spin the story to put Moore in a poor light: “I am going to move forward with the press that Michael Moore cost the university a hundred thousand dollars because he didn’t want to debate.”
A story subsequently appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal about the dispute, but reporter Beryl Chong didn’t use the spin Reviglio had hoped.
Reviglio also said in the messages that he would “be willing to leave the [student government] out of the deal when I go to the press” if Champagne would provide Reviglio with the telephone number for Moore or Moore’s agent. That way, Reviglio said, he would be able to tell the press that it was Moore, not the students, who refused to arrange the debate.
The students have repeatedly expressed their willingness to bring conservative speakers to the campus if the businesspeople are willing to partly subsidize it. The Moore appearance is paid for by $6,300 in student government funds, ticket sales and a $10,000 subsidy from a political group called Democracy for Nevada. The students expect no profit but hope the cost of the event will be covered. Tickets have been selling well.
The money for a conservative speaker is already allocated—the student Senate voted to provide $6,300 for the purpose. “It’s waiting,” Champagne says, but so far no one has taken them up on it. When Champagne informed Reviglio, the businessman replied in another message that the offer would not divert him from his anti-Moore strategy:
“That topic [a conservative speaker] is parallel, over to the side of this topic here, about letting people know that Michael Moore isn’t the honorable, great American humanitarian that he touts to be, for he would let a hundred thousand dollar donation that the university is in need of go by the wayside.”
Reviglio has contributed at least $2,000, and five other members of his family have given at least $10,000, to the campaign of President Bush. Winkel has contributed at least $1,150 to Bush. Savage has contributed $2,000 to Bush. Madole and Sankovich had made no contributions as of the latest filing date.
There is a long history of controversy surrounding speakers on the UNR campus, as well as a history of businesspeople being displeased by university activities.
In February 1976, Reno businessmen William Kottinger, Rowland Oakes and Ted Hermann went to the Nevada Senate Finance Committee to support cuts made by Gov. Mike O’Callaghan in the university budget. At that hearing, University Chancellor Neil Humphrey charged that Reno Chamber of Commerce lobbyist Fred Davis had threatened to oppose the university budget unless the activities of “faculty and their wives” were curbed, a claim Davis denied. That focused attention on Margaret Eadington, wife of UNR economist William Eadington, who was involved in controlled-growth activities opposed by the businesspeople.
In 1987, casino representatives threatened reductions in contributions to the university system after the book publishing arm of the university released Forty Years in the Wilderness by historian James Hulse, a criticism of the state’s policies and of the casinos in shaping those policies.
Only rarely have the appearances of speakers been cancelled under pressure. In December 1970, the student activities board denied matching funds to pay for a speaking appearance by antiwar leader Tom Hayden, later a California state senator. In February 1975, a scheduled appearance by war criminal William Calley was cancelled after a furor on the campus and in the community.
Nevada legislative lobbyist Greg Ferraro says that when he was a student at UNR, there was an effort to cancel an appearance by Rolling Stone writer Hunter S. Thompson, but it failed. And then, Ferraro says, Thompson was so drunk that he barely completed his speech.
Whatever else the alumni and businesspeople have accomplished, they have probably insured that they won’t have to worry about dealing with Jeff Champagne in public office in the future. Champagne says he has enjoyed the part of the job that involves providing services to the students but not the political part: “The politics is very interesting. It’s opened my eyes a whole lot, but, yes, after this I’m not so sure if I’ll be getting involved in politics.”